Activists rejecting and supporting abortion have  demonstrated in front of the parliament  [EPA]

Abortion is legal for all rape victims in Argentina, the country's Supreme Court has ruled , clarifying a 1922 law interpreted as applying only to mentally impaired women.

The ruling on Tuesday related to the case of a 15-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather and sought relief under the law, which allows abortions "if the pregnancy results from a rape or an attack on the modesty of a demented or idiot woman".

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld a provincial tribunal's decision to grant the abortion. Although the girl had undergone the procedure already, the high court justices opted to rule on the case to set precedence for the future.

Abortion is banned in much of Latin America, home to about half the world's Roman Catholics. Some countries allow abortion in the case of rape, but only Cuba and Guyana have fully legalized the procedure.

In Argentina, legal wrangling over which abortions are legal has delayed operations for weeks or months and has even put
women's health at risk in some cases, the Supreme Court said.

"This puts an end to the uncertainty related to the scope [of the law] ... which in some courts had been understood to
apply only to those rape victims who had some kind of mental disability," a press statement from the court said.

Al Jazeera's Teresa Bo, reporting from Buenos Aires, said that despite the abortion ban, an estimated 5,000 illegal surgeries are performed each year.

"Women's groups say this ruling is the first step in what they say has been a long fight for their rights," Bo said.

'Unduly restricted'

The Supreme Court said doctors should not seek court approval to perform these abortions. All that is needed from the
victims, or their legal representatives, is a sworn affidavit stating that the pregnancy resulted from rape.

Argentina's high court justices also urged judges not to intervene in these cases, saying this only creates obstacles.

"There is a widespread practice fomented by health workers and backed by some members of the national and provincial judiciary that has unduly restricted rape victims' access to a legal abortion," the high court said.

"These victims cannot be kept from exercising this right." 

Monsignor Jose Maria Arancedo, head of Argentina's bishops conference, responded to the ruling by saying, "There is nothing that justifies the elimination of an innocent life, not even the lamentable and sad case of rape," the AICA Catholic news service reported.

Argentina allows gay marriage and has some of the most liberal social policies in the region. But debate on legalising
abortion has made little headway, in part due to the opposition of centre-left President Cristina Fernandez.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies